Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Why I'll Miss Malcolm Rifkind

Most political careers end, in the words of the poet, 'not with a bang but a whimper'. Malcolm Rifkind's has ended with a deafening thud and, like so many deafening thuds before it, this has been followed by a moment of stunned silence before our senses clear and we begin to see what kind of new world we're emerging into.

I suspect it is a world unchanged except for the loss of one respected voice inside the Commons and the anticipated gain of another cuff-heavy champagne-snorting Cameron-lite, in the form of Olympic celebrity rower, James Cracknell. At the moment, I fail to see how parliament has emerged victorious.

Having said that: Rifkind was probably right to go. I watched Despatches last night and he struck me as a man bored with politics; his spirit possibly having drifted out of the game a long time ago but his body not really quite ready to let go of the reigns. He was charming, funny, and personable but, according to the people who count these things, the votes he's attended recently is well below average despite his constituency being one of the closest to Westminster. Watching the programme, I felt a pang of disappointment because Rifkind had always struck me as one of the better Tories and probably even my favourite on the government benches. When Rifkind spoke, I'd always listen, not always in agreement but with serious intent to catch his nuanced words. He seemed like a man at home inside his own brain, which is a rare quality in politicos these days, too many of whom seem divorced from the practicalities of thinking and over-practised in the practicalities of repeating party mantra or dogmatic nonsense.

The speed of Rifkind's departure is perhaps indicative of his heart being no longer in the fight. He claims to have wanted one more term but people who want just one more term are probably already too far gone to be part of the game. It's a shame. Despatches didn't, even to my jaded eyes, present a case that shamed him any more than many other politicians should be shamed. That's not to say that Rifkind's behaviour wasn't turdish but, in the context of the Westminster sewer, even he might have emerged smelling relatively sweet. Jack Straw (another politician for whom I've always had a great deal of time) seemed more immersed in the grime because he was more boastful of the influence he'd had. Yet none of that seemed surprising. It was just the greasy things politicians do when they've played around the greasy pole long enough.

Michel Cockerell's excellent series 'Inside the Commons' concludes tonight so perhaps I'm still suffering from a mild dose of having some renewed faith in the political system when I say that not all politicians are in it for money. However, I know politics can be one of the few get rich quick schemes that actually work. The Independent this morning charts the MPs earning the most from second jobs. Gordon Brown tops the poll which is unsurprisingly given he's the only ex-Prime Minister who is still a sitting MP. Rifkind doesn't even make the top 10, whilst the most surprising and telling entry is that man of the people, George Galloway, who allegedly earned an additional £303,350 in 2014.

Not that other people's excesses should excuse Rifkind. The evidence is still pretty damning if profit is the crime. I see from his Wikipedia page that although Rifkind is/was a sitting MP, he also earned £85,992 from Unilever as a Non-executive Director. He took another £35,000 as Non-executive Director of Adam Smith International and a mere £25,000 from L.E.K. Consulting where he was a member of the Advisory Board. So, on top of earning more money than most as an MP, each of his additional jobs was also earning him more than most. For the record, I'd happily join the Advisory Board of L.E.K. Consulting and I'd do his job for half the salary and twice the hours.

Not as if that is likely to happen. They would rightly argue that I couldn't do his job, whatever that job was. I lack his experience inside Westminster and government. He'd bring to the table the shrewd brain that made him a QC and Foreign Minister whilst I'd bring the shrewd brain that makes me a second rate blogger and third rate cartoonist. So, I'm not going to deny that sometimes businesses are right to pay huge money to people with very specific and unique skills. Nor am I deny the right of those people to make money. Yet what does gall me is how this way of running business goes against everything the current government seems to represent.

A failure of the Thatcherite model of conservatism is that it introduces competition into every avenue of our lives. As soon as you introduce competition, the whole thing quickly untangles and you're in a race to undercut your rival. In business, that often means undercutting your rival simply to stop them getting business and (eventually) forcing them out of business, even if undercutting your rival damages your own business. It's a ethos that insists that the cheapest option is always the best option. Companies move departments to India or China to exploit cheap labour markets, often resulting in a drop in quality. The government wants teachers, doctors, and consultants to qualify more quickly. They want roles usually given to 'professionals' taken up by cheaper assistants or even volunteers.

Yet the only people who seem immune to these competitive pressures are the very people who champion those pressures the most. The Tories champion zero hour contracts and talk about a 'booming economy' despite it booming because our government care nothing about worker's rights. The coming election is being defined by which party is 'business friendly' and not which party cares for the poor sod on minimum wage or worse. At the same time, the Tories are also playing dog whistle politics, using that deeply odorous phrase 'For Hardworking People' to stir the passions of their traditional voters who persist in the misguided notion that the nation is full of workshy layabouts. All this in a climate in which a politician with three extra 'jobs' can claim to have a surprising amount of free time.

Has Britain ever been more divided?

There is no competition at the top where 'safe seats' are exchanged as pawns in a political game and favours turn into name-on-the-letterhead directorships. How much real competition in their in that world where Rifkind is the father of The Times columnist Hugo and, according to Wikipedia, related to Leon Brittan as well as being second cousin once removed of DJ Mark Ronson. What are the chances of that? Nobody I know (or I'm guessing you know) is once, twice, or even thrice removed from DJ Mark Ronson or, for that matter, MP Malcolm Rifkind.

And that is the sad reality that belies the talk of cleaning out the Commons and making politics honest. If there's a stink, it's not the stink of Rifkind's perceived greed. It's not even the stink of a system in which men like George Galloway claim to be there for the people but the evidence suggests he's really in it for himself. Frankly, I don't blame him. The stink is of a system in which an establishment treats the rest of the nation as minimum wage fodder. It's a nation where the highest office in the land is occupied by  the 5th cousin, twice removed of the monarch. It's where life has so much potential but only to a potential few. Malcolm Rifkind was the very least of our problems.

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